March 18, 2005

GOTTA BE ABLE TO READ THE RETURNS:

In Australia he's called ruthless and grubby but he helped to win four elections. Can he win one for Michael Howard?: Thanks to their campaign chief, Lynton Crosby, plain speaking on controversial issues has lifted the Tories. Now the battle could get even dirtier (Sandra Laville, March 19, 2005, The Guardian)

Nine years on from the victory of the Australian Liberal leader John Howard over an apparently invincible Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, [Lynton] Crosby is attempting a repeat performance, steering another Howard to a seemingly impossible election win in Britain. [...]

The mark of Mr Crosby is increasingly evident in the issues headlining the Tory agenda: immigration, asylum seekers and, most recently, abortion, all familiar to veterans of political campaigning in Australia.

The apparent gusto with which he tackles such issues has laid Mr Crosby and his business partner - the pollster Mark Textor, who is also advising the Tories - open to accusations that they pander to the lowest common denominator. "They will play to the basest of opinions in the coming weeks," said Bob Hogg, a former campaigner for the Australian Labor party. "There's a dark underside to any human being and they pander to people's fears."

Others, however, see this tactic as an ability to tap into the public mood, no matter how unsavoury the views uncovered. According to Mr Walker, Mr Crosby's success in the upcoming election will be down to the meticulous research he undertakes through Mr Textor, who flies into London in the next few days.

Whether it is fears of asylum seekers, high taxation or unemployment, Mr Crosby, according to Mr Walker, finely tunes his research to pinpoint the issues that can turn votes. Typically, media teams will work 24 hours a day analysing the results of polling and voters will be addressed the same day with direct mailshots on the issues raised.

"There's no doubt that he is behind the immigration/asylum issue being addressed by Michael Howard, because that was a John Howard issue, border protection," Mr Walker said. "No one wants their jobs to be taken away by foreigners and border protection is a major concern in most of the western world."


The rather simple lesson of John Howard and George Bush's historic victories is to run to the Right. Despite that the normally perceptive Tony Blair has allowed the Tories, after 8 years, to get to his Right.

MORE:
Howard's handful of men are chopping Blair to pieces: The NHS is Labour terrain, but even here the Tories are gaining ground (Polly Toynbee, March 9, 2005, The Guardian)

So what's going wrong? Mighty Labour marched towards the battle, massive, unassailable, prepared for the coming conflict with every modern electoral siege engine. (I even had a personal spam from Tony Blair, "Dear Labour Supporter", which seemed to me, and no doubt all recipients, presumptuous.)

Here he is, at the head of his colossal Roman army, stamping along the shores of Lake Trasimene towards a well planned war, when suddenly Hannibal and his handful of men charge down out of the mist and chop them all to pieces - and it's happening every day. Think US army with all its hardware outwitted in Vietnam by cunning guerrillas on bicycles, vanishing into the undergrowth before anyone can confront their policies.

In yesterday's NHS press conference, Tony Blair and John Reid were bleating at these cowardly tactics. Why does the press front-page every attack, yet never put Tory policy under the same scrutiny? (Pity Blair didn't query press ownership back on May 2 1997.) John Reid challenges: "Mr Howard, stop using human shields to hide behind. Have the guts to come out in the open and debate your indefensible policy!" But Labour looks ambushed by the ferocity, speed and dirty tricks of a Tory party that has suddenly woken from its torpor. Just look at the Tory website for attack, compared with Labour's timid offering. Where is the rapid rebuttal force that used to defend Labour? Where are the friends and allies in every field that used to jump to its defence?

Every day the Tories are first in with a punch on the nose, a flyweight frisking around the ageing champ. Eight years is many dog-years in government, while voters' political memories are goldfish-short. The awful truth is only just dawning on Labour that what things were like eight years ago doesn't cut much mustard, except with we political archivists.


-It's Blair, Iraq and immigration: Those expecting a Labour election walkover should get out more. From Beeston to Brentwood, the mood is increasingly hostile (Patrick Barkham, March 19, 2005, The Guardian)
If a May election is called, the signs on the streets point to a possible Tory victory. Forget the politicians, the punditry and the polls. This is not a forecast forged in the bars of Westminster or at the dining tables of north London. This is mood music; and the mood of ordinary voters is increasingly hostile to the government.

In the past week I've met more than 50 voters in south Nottinghamshire, south Dorset and south Essex. It was not a planned assignment to assess public opinion; it was not an attempt to talk up chances of a Conservative victory; I was not seeking discontent. But the discontent found me. Alarmingly for the government, a popular critique of Labour was implacable and inescapable.

A determination to vote against the government is coalescing around three themes. Every voter mentions Tony Blair. For the Labour faithful, it's the Thatcher factor. He is just like Her: arrogant and out-of-touch. New Labour voters, who backed the government in 1997 and 2001, swear they can't trust Blair. The reason is almost always Iraq.

On the suburban streets of Nottingham and Weymouth - both in Labour marginals - the second most mentioned issue is immigration and asylum. Its rise up the political agenda has long been forecast, thanks to the ministrations of the Daily Mail. But in voters' minds, it connects with Blair and Iraq. In Beeston and Brentwood, you could hear the same complaint. The prime minister cares more about foreign policy or, more crudely, foreigners, than the problems here. Look at Iraq, voters said, look at asylum.

The third theme is not a single issue but personal experience. People mention a relative receiving unsatisfactory NHS treatment or encounters with petty crime and antisocial behaviour. For pensioners, their personal grudge against the government is their pensions. The wealthy blame Labour for triggering the collapse of company pension funds. The less wealthy blame Labour for making them take a "begging bowl" to bureaucrats for means-tested pension credit.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 18, 2005 11:31 PM
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